At midnight it is Jean Grae’s birthday. She grins like a landing beacon and hands out cupcakes decorated with skulls and crossbones while the crowd sings her a song. Then she gets back to ripping our insides out with machine-gun vocals over pounding beats. There is no overestimating how fucking cool this woman is. Her tongue and her lips move in a perfect blur of overlapping synchrony, like Cossack dancers at the Moscow Olympics. She’s literally spitting her words, in hard-hitting verses with precision and venom, born of heartbreak and harsh streets at daybreak and the need to stand firm and demand respect. She’s hammering out words in a purring staccato that makes the next day’s thunderstorms sound like ambient noise. Then she’s soul-singing in a voice as rich and thick as cigar smoke, and for a minute she’s the only person in the room. The attitude behind the rap is Kevlar, the look on her face worldly and worn, the shine in her eyes brand new. She hangs a bottle of Grey Goose loosely from one hand, taking swigs at intervals while rapping “send me a case for product placement.”
She does all this while wearing a sundress and a leather jacket, collar cocked, sleeves pushed back; graceful but packing deadly force. Her hair is hacked and styled into a badass skunk-coif, sides shaved, top swept up and back, front tuft dyed blonde against her natural black. Tattoos climb her calves and her arms and the sides of her neck. She smiles and snarls, style and substance. She’s fierce. Unrelenting. Beautiful. No hint of R&B lip-gloss or corny booty grind, yet gorgeous in a way that all the Ashantis of the world could never manage.
Her album is called Cake or Death. She’s not just a kick-arse electrically-talented intimidating wordsmith and showstopper. She’s a kick-arse electrically-talented intimidating wordsmith and showstopper who listens to Eddie Izzard. There is no getting any closer to perfection. She could rap the face off any guy I’ve ever heard. She could swear the steel rods out of reinforced concrete. She’s got a mouth like sandpaper and she shreds us raw. By the time Pharoahe Monch comes on, I’m only half there, staring into the semi-distance in a Hanging Rock mouth-gaped trance, only waking up when she comes back for a one-two duet. I have made a lifelong habit of falling in love with every girl I meet. But this one is something else. Jean Grae, I will never meet you, but you have my heart.